Do you remember when your college acceptance letter came in the mail? Imagine if the same letter, folded into a small, manila envelope, had also included your SAT/ACT grades, informing you not only where you would be going but also the grades that had determined your fate. Such a letter is perhaps the closest approximation of the infamous manila that Israeli students receive in their last year of high school. Just like the letter young Americans found in their mailboxes before the draft was rescinded in 1973, the manila informs Israeli students of their draft date and lists what positions they can have in the IDF based on their performance at tzav rishon. In popular culture, the day the manila arrives is akin to when Americans head off to college. Childhood is left behind as eighteen year olds prepare to live away from home with unfamiliar faces in an environment that is like nothing they have encountered in the past.
One of the key scenes in Turn Left at the End of the World, an all too sexy Israeli movie we watched in ulpan on Wednesday September 9, takes place when the main characters receive their manilas, signaling their exit from the dysfunctional world of their new immigrant families. When my own manila arrived later in the day, the reality was not quite as exciting. Perhaps my mundane reaction reflects the fact that not only have I been living away from my family since age 14 but the day I decided to put an ocean in between my immediate family occurred many months ago. Or perhaps my response reflects the modest reality of my actual manila, a single slip of paper handed over by my madricha Michal with the celebrated manila envelope nowhere in sight.
After giving everyone in my garin the piece of paper listing what they can do in the army, Michal confirmed that all the guys had received profiles of 97. And then she dropped the real bomb: Save for the four garin members whose draft status remains in limbo (due to a variety of physical and background issues), none of us would be heading to Mikve Alon, the dreaded army ulpan for new conscripts whose Hebrew is not up to snuff.
The next day all 210 members of Garin Tzabar met in Tel HaShomer, the same army base on the outskirts of Tel Aviv we will be returning to in late November when we start the IDF. This time we were there for an army job fair, the Israeli military’s chance to introduce us to the many positions we can choose in the army. The manilas we had received the day before had not closed any doors, meaning that Garin Tzabar members could go anywhere in the IDF they desired. As most of the guys are only familiar with the famous infantry brigades like Tzanchanim (Paratroopers) and Golani, the Tel HaShomer fairground was designed to widen our horizons.
Widen our horizons is another way of saying that all the units in the army that rarely receive highly motivated, foreign volunteers were on display. Chayil HaAvir (Air Force), Modiin (intelligence), and the more respected infantry brigades (Givati, Golani ,Nachal, Tzanchanim) were noticeably absent. In their place were snappy presentations by Pikud Ha’Oref (Home Front Command, essentially search and rescue), Mishmar HaGvul, colloquially known as Magav (Border Police), Shir'yon (Tank Brigade), Totchanim (artillery), Modiin Sadeh (field intelligence), and Kfir, the newest and frankly the least respected of the army’s infantry units.
Magav probably had the most impressive presentation, including a heart pounding and inspiring five minute film comparable to anything coming out of Hollywood (the opening sequence in the Magav movie was even hilariously ripped straight from the shining searchlight scene used by 20th Century Fox). While the Border Police have four special units (Matilan, intelligence gathering; Yamag, rapid deployment anti-crime and terror team; Yamas, undercover anti-terror; and above all, Yamam, Israel’s most elite hostage rescue unit) that are on par with the most elite combat teams in the regular army, the general consensus is that most positions in Magav are far from challenging or rewarding. Hence the all out PR blitz, which seemed to do the job because even those that failed to express interest in joining Magav were openly admiring the unit’s PR staff.
I was only too happy to leave Tel HaShomer when the job fair mercifully ended four hours after it began. The most impressive thing I had seen was a massive D9 armored bulldozer. The most impressive thing I heard was a moving speech by former Israeli general Yosi Eldar, who fought off the Syrians alongside Avigdor Kahalani as a tank commander during the harrowing days of the Yom Kippur War. Eldar ended his remarks by standing in front of all 210 members of Garin Tzabar with an Israeli flag. He looked directly at the crowd and with tears in his eyes, asked our generation to promise to defend the country as ably as our predecessors.
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